Unleashing Safety Energy

Safety leadership has energy problems, either of the “not enough” or “way too much” or "ineffectively directed" kinds. The same messages repeated the same old ways with minor variations on one hand, trying to stimulate enthusiasm for getting people to not be complacent or, on the opposite pole, super-positively thinking/talking/reinforcing to try to spark and ignite the flame of safety first when the tinder of worker receptivity is either sparse or dampened.

Everything comes down to energy, which can’t be created or destroyed, only changed, transmuted, reconfigured and recast. What appears to be solid matter is in fact electrons orbiting so quickly around atomic nuclei that they appear solid when, in fact, they’re almost entirely space. Empty. Einstein: “Concerning matter, we have been all wrong. What we have called matter is energy, whose vibration has been so lowered as to be perceptible to the senses.”

In nature, energy is essential for catalyzing change in all chemical reactions such as transforming two disparate elements into another with vastly different qualities, such as combining highly caustic sodium with poisonous chlorine into a mostly inert life-preserving salt. It’s similarly essential to transform the “chemistry” that ignites interest, motivation and movement within individuals and in organizations to change ingrained unsafe habits into vastly safer ones or significantly step up a long-plateaued safety culture.

This begs some questions: Is a leader’s passion to pressure then enforce or to inspire and offer? Do they set the bar so high that even they themselves can’t fully do what they’re expecting or demanding of others?

Ironically both spectrums of these leadership approaches accept energizing as critical—and that the way to accomplish this is for leaders to push it onto workers, either with a stick or a fine chocolate bar.

Too much or too little in pretty much anything—whether in diet, exercise, communications or motivation—unbalances. As important, energy’s direction—externally or from within. Call-out communications—whether “concerned interventions” or rev-up “you can do it!” kind—often result in pushback, rarely the positive changes the speaker hoped for. And even positive responses to injected energy typically fade within a brief time.

But “energy” and “energizing” are not the same. “Energizing” implies externally adding energy from outside a person by a department, business unit or company trying to “get them to do what I want them to do—and enthusiastically liking it to boot.” It’s tiring for overly-stretched leaders as well as not sustainable to continually pour motivation into others. Help people turn up their own light and find workable ways for refueling their own lamps.

Much “old style safety” is based on workers being told and reminded externally by even well-meaning and highly motivated experts. But there’s no perpetual motion mechanism. The friction of morphing daily to-do’s, uprising concerns and other attention draws rubbing against us tend to neutralize one-shot or once-in-a-while energy injections (that might not even work initially for me or for you.)

Counterpoint: Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman contended, “Leadership is not just about giving energy…it’s unleashing other people’s energy.” And this goes double for safety leadership. No matter how many explicit policies and procedures an organization has, despite the quality of PPE provided or training or messages communicated, energy is required to actually make things happen. Best when it springs from within.

Unleashing implies people remove the overtight of trying to make others blindly or half-sleepily follow policies and procedures they may not fully understand or know how to specifically apply overly-general rules to the realm of actual real-life and unique situations that spring up. Of course, policies and procedures are definitely needed directives, essential in process safety to avoid that boom, toxic leak or dangerous zap. But especially when it comes to personal injuries—the plagues of soft-tissue/sprains/strains, slips/trips/falls, struck-bys, vehicle slams, caught-betweens (pretty much covering Liberty Mutual’s 2022 top 10 causes of disabling workplace injuries)—general directives rarely can adequately anticipate and avert all risk circumstances.

So what can leaders do? Ironically, they can and should help spark by offering, rather than mandating, working options, carefully sifted through the sieve of being highly safe, useful/practical, easy to apply while often working at a high pace and interesting/compelling and embraceable to others.

The anthesis de-energizing/draining others’ personal batteries? When leaders assume they’ve done their job just by writing some policies or exhorting workers general-and-ultimately-meaningless messaging like “think before you act,” “pay attention” or “safety first.” Where workers believe their lives are made more complicated without adequate reason/payback, useless extra effort, more to remember that makes little sense – and that they see doesn’t benefit their lives.

  • Ask (yourself, as well as a group of representative workers) what are they interested in? What do they ultimately want? Of these things, what might we as leaders really be able to offer them that fits with their already-existing needs and motivations? Do workers believe it makes their lives easier and better, even if only in a small way?
  • Move away from mandating there’s “one right way” to lift, push, pull, carry, climb or walk. Demanding adherence to “the only way” extinguishes mindfulness—the interest in and ability to determine “what’s really happening now.” Yes, there are guidelines and powerful principles for elevating soft-tissue safety, but the “one right way” might actually raise risk exposure for those who have pre-existing conditions or “energize” pushback from those who try it that way where it doesn’t work for them.
  • Share what energizes you. For example, leaders might talk about how they see the real purpose of their work. For example, Daniel Wingler, Senior Manager, Environmental, Health, & Safety at Pfizer, expressed, “What a remarkable opportunity this has been for myself, my family, and professionally! It brings me joy knowing that I’m part of a collaborative team that truly changes patients' lives each and every day through research and manufacturing of vaccines and medicine.” In the same way that ringing a tuning fork will vibrate and resonate with others nearby, I’ve heard strong leaders like Daniel inspiring, sparking and reminding those around them by talking about their personal excitement, growth and change.
  • Internalize Safety. Offer methods that help people live and work better—that they appreciate. We’ve found showing workers soft-tissue safety and slip/trip prevention methods can help them get better at their favorite sports and off-work hobbies and can zoom up their energy. And that this can last as they become interested in practicing these methods without concern about whether they are being monitored externally.
  • Employ multiplication by subtraction. Route out and reduce (or even eliminate) existing De-energizers, such as prevalent mixed messages (e.g., “Safety’s #1” along with “Just get it out as fast as you can” where sayings clash with the doings, or like promoting would-be harsh-communicators who make no secret of their disdain for safety.)

Lest you think this is theoretical, we’ve seen it in action and been applying this all over the world in all kinds of industries. Energy-balanced safety leaders are more likely to influence workers to personally embrace safety and then actively incorporate safe methods into their work and home activities.

This article originally appeared in the December 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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